Electioneering in Uttar Pradesh

CAMPAIGNING IS drawing to a close in central Uttar Pradesh. Terrorism was definitely not an election issue in Awadh. No one talks of terrorism or Ayodhya. Indeed, the BJP's electioneering spotlight on temple and terror is not cutting any ice with the voters. This is the main conclusion of a cross-section survey conducted by students of the Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The voters' dominant concerns are the lack of economic opportunities, unemployment, corruption and unresponsive governance, rather than the stone-carving activities in nearby Karsewakpuram or the Central Government's spectacular troop mobilisation. If popular responses are anything to go by, the BJP is on the defensive in this keenly contested election since economic issues have swamped national security and identity politics.

As we drove through the streets of Lucknow and villages in Malihabad and Sarojini Nagar constituencies amidst huge hoardings and banners announcing the names of candidates and autorickshaws propagating high-pitched messages, the BJP's anti-terrorism offensive was missing from the cacophony. We asked people whether terrorism was an issue and their response was a definite rebuff. Terrorism might be making headlines in Delhi, but here most people are scarcely bothered about it because it does not impinge on their daily lives. POTO, SIMI and Indo-Pakistan tension did not figure in the conversations of voters huddled together around kiosks and stalls animatedly making prognostications about the outcome of the polls. In fact, questions on POTO invited a counter question: "POTO? Kya aap ko humra photo khinchana hai?" (Do you want to take our photograph?) Obviously, there are limits to how much the BJP can profit from the plank of anti-terrorism and aggressive nationalism.

Though the BJP is once again mixing religion and politics via Ayodhya, it is not making an impression on the electorate even in constituencies that are next to the town. Identity politics and issues that play upon people's anxieties and cultural fears, which had propelled the BJP to centre stage a decade ago, do not grip the voters any longer. The VHP's temple building activity appeared to be of little interest to Hindus, and likewise the Babri Masjid movement's demand to stop it seems of no concern to Muslims. No one here believes this is a major issue. Everyone knows this is all for the elections. Nudge any Malihabadi about temple construction and the response is invariably a shrug. Any worry that it will lead to polarisation is immediately dispelled. Most voters mocked the procrastination. Naresh Kumar in Sarojini Nagar said: "Voters know that if the BJP, VHP wanted to build the temple they could have started the construction in the last five years, but they have not done it to exploit the temple issue for political gains." Given this cynicism it is no surprise that the BJP activists have stopped distributing temple pamphlets, which they were handing out in the beginning of the electioneering.

Instead, economic and people's livelihood issues have grown in importance, mainly because successive ruling parties have shown no concern for them. All the three constituencies bear witness to Government apathy and neglect. Malihabad and Sarojini Nagar are a stone's throw from Lucknow, but there are no streetlights, no electricity, very few motorable roads and female literacy is practically non-existent. There is widespread indignation over the poor performance of the Government and its failure to carry out development activities.

Although people are angry about corruption, insensitive governance and the unhelpful treatment meted out to them by their MLAs and the Government, it is not clear to what extent this will influence their voting. Caste can still trump everything else in the volatile politics of Uttar Pradesh. To be sure, the majority of the respondents said they would vote for someone from their caste. Forced by the failure of the temple and terror cards, the BJP is playing the backward caste card to the hilt. However, the bulk of the voters had not heard about Rajnath Singh's new reservation policy of a quota within quota and those who have were vehemently opposing it. At any rate, such expedient caste calculations might not translate into electoral success. This is because of a perceptible shift away from caste politics, which has reached a saturation point as various parties begin to rope in breakaway groups from other castes. Caste politics and, quotas and sub-quotas cannot be surrogates for roads, electricity, dispensaries, hospitals, public investment, and employment lost because of industries closing down.

As for the famous Muslim vote, Mulayam Singh remains the favourite, but the vote might well be dispersed among several secular parties. The BSP claims it has honoured the Muslim community by fielding 86 Muslims, four from Lucknow, including Sarojini Nagar. But Munir Ahmed in Sarojini Nagar was not impressed, explaining that: "Scheduled Castes will vote for Mayawati's candidate regardless of winnability, but Muslims do not automatically vote for a Muslim candidate." To reinforce the point he affirmed: "Even if the Imam of the Masjid were to contest, Muslims will not necessarily vote for him." Many Muslims resent parties promising them security. One Shakeel Khan asked: "Have Muslims committed any crime that they need protection and security forever? Parties talk of security to avoid the real issues of education, schools and jobs. Are Muslims prisoners in their own country, insecure second-class citizens in permanent need of security?" Ultimately which party is favoured is determined by its commitment to promote social equity and its capacity to defeat the BJP.Most voters are disgusted by the pervasive corruption, which has become an integral part of the political system. This assessment cuts across identity and party loyalties. Pakistan-sponsored terrorism is not the issue here, but the terrorism of bribery and sleaze is, which everyone maintains has touched unprecedented levels in the last five years. Fearful of the Government in the absence of transparency and accountability they would rather be left alone. The lack of communication between the BJP Government/party and the people is apparent as a new breed of middlemen and operatives have emerged to get things done. In the past, party cadres used to get things done, but now that networks of middlemen have replaced party networks, it requires working through them or through the organised RSS networks and interest groups, which typically works for the ideologically converted. Finally, while party strategies have changed in this Assembly election, we can discern a bigger shift in voter strategies, which might not dramatically change future electioneering, but the actions of Governments will exercise a decisive influence at future elections. National concerns fail to consume the voters. This marks a major change from the electioneering of the 1990s. Party leaders often stress high-minded national themes but voters are focussed on specific issues.

It is mainly attributable to political awakening and to the crumbling of political institutions and policy processes. Promises at elections count for more than they did in earlier elections. Voters increasingly understand that elected politicians are supposed to respond to local needs, and when this does not happen they are inclined to punish them for it. Certainly people are mindful of their caste, class and community identities but right now they consider basic needs to be non-tradeable. In Uttar Pradesh it may seldom have been truer. Is any political party listening?

(The writer is Professor, Centre for Political Studies, JNU.)

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